From Strategic Planning to Planning Strategically: An Alternative Approach to Planning for Leaders of Online Educational Programs

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

A study of 25 strategic plans from colleges and universities across the United States reveals that strategic planning is a poor model for online educational programs. Planning strategically represents an alternative approach for leaders, managers and implementers of online programs.  Three approaches to planning strategically will be described.


I am a professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the co-author of Best Practices in Online Program Development (Routledge 2014)

Extended Abstract

Strategic planning has become a routine management practice throughout higher education.   With mandates from accrediting agencies, boards of trustees, state legislatures and other stakeholders, all types of colleges and universities typically engage in extensive, often labor-intensive strategic planning processes that can range from six to 18 months long.  In many cases, the goal is to delineate an institutional vision, goals and objectives for a period of time that may extend for three to six years.

Many observers argue that strategic planning has only met with limited success even in the corporate world in which it was first developed.  The stereotypical experience is that strategic plans are developed and released with great fanfare, and then wind up gathering dust on a shelf as companies and organizations react opportunistically as events unfold.  With that in mind, strategic planning in higher education faces additional obstacles and challenges that are not apparent in the corporate world.  Although strategic planning was originally conceptualized as a tool for senior management to assert and exert control over increasingly complex organizations,  since the emergence of the modern university more than 100 years, most colleges and universities are not strictly hierarchically organized and the ability of senior administrators in higher education to implement a strategic vision across the university  is constrained by competing, semi-autonomous power centers and other stakeholders on campus including, perhaps most notably, the faculty.  Structurally, colleges and universities are loosely coupled organizations; every organizational unit is not narrowly focused on the same goals and outcomes.

As online education plays an increasingly important role in many traditional colleges and universities, the imperative to plan, implement and support online educational programs has grown as well.  The need to develop strategic plans to guide the growth of online education in higher education seems obvious.  But a study of 25 strategic plans for online educational programs from a variety of colleges and universities across the United States reveals that many of the techniques and processes associated with strategic planning are ineffective when applied to online educational programs housed within traditional colleges and universities. 

Several barriers stand in the way of strategic planning.  First, within the context of traditional higher education, online education has gained its initial toeholds in very specific areas such as continuing and professional education, particularly at the graduate level, degree completion, supplemental and remedial education and other niche areas.  To a large degree, in many traditional colleges and universities, online education is still marginal, and outside the main academic project of the institution. 

Secondly, by its nature, strategic planning is generally the responsibility of senior administration.  But in higher education, the academic program is largely the domain of faculty.  And while faculty members generally participate in the strategic planning processes in most colleges and universities, they are rarely the decision-makers for the plan and often don’t even have a major voice.  However, faculty does largely have the authority to guide and control academic program. Consequently centrally crafted strategic plans for online educational programs can be easily ignored or face significant resistance.

Third, because online educational programs have often been developed outside of the main academic project, responsibility for the programs are often lodged in their own institution unit, such as a center for online learning.  Sometimes, though not always, led by faculty members, these centers frequently are staffed by instructional designers and other personnel  charged with supporting the growth of online educational program.  Their institutional positions make it difficult for them to assert leadership in many situations.

Fourth, the growth of online educational programs can have an impact on many other units of colleges and universities ranging from admissions, to student support to advancement, to alumni affairs and others.  But given the loosely coupled structures found in most colleges and universities, routine channels of communication and lines of authority among the different stakeholders who could feel the impact of the expansion of online education frequently are not in place or are not robust enough to successfully manage the change online education involves.

Fifth, traditional strategic planning processes are too slow and too complex to guide the development of online educational programs.   Online education is developing too quickly to create plans that are intended to last for up to five years.   For online education to fulfill its potential, colleges and universities must be nimble enough to respond to opportunities.

In short, strategic planning is a poor model and practice for people—administrators, faculty and staff--responsible for developing, implementing, supporting and nurturing online educational programs within the context of traditional colleges and universities. Even if a strategic plan could be developed in a reasonable period of time, the chances of it being successfully implemented and achieving its goals are relatively small.

 Planning strategically is an alternative model to strategic planning for leaders, managers and implementers of online programs.  In this presentation, three approaches to planning strategically will be described—the Simple Rules methodology championed by Sull and Eisenhardt, the current state/future state approach, and what is called the Seven Questions exercise.  These approaches offer many advantages compared to strategic planning.  Planning strategically is more nimble and more amenable to ongoing revision.  It is less time consuming and demanding of resources.  It can more democratic, and include stakeholders from throughout the university.  The process of planning strategically can be driven by a smaller group of people, those people with the most commitment to nurturing online education regardless of their institutional position.  Finally, planning strategically practices are designed to be calibrated to have the maximum impact given a specific context, environment and momment in time.

The outcome from planning strategically is not a formal plan per se to be executed by others but a roadmap to achieving an desired goal.  Planning strategically provides a platform through which those active in the development and implementation of online educational programs can communicate their needs to other stakeholders.  It proves a blueprint for accumulating the resources needed to succeed.  And it initiates a process geared to ongoing and continuous development.

This presentation is geared to all the stakeholders in developing online educational programs in traditional colleges in universities.  Participants will

  • briefly review traditional strategic planning processes and how they have been applied in online program development
  • explore techniques associated with planning strategically
  • engage in a thought experiment and mini-workshop to apply those techniques to their specific situation.

The session will be interactive and proactive. The goal is to help people apply core planning concepts to the context and vision for online education in their institutions and develop appropriate approaches to shaping the future of online education in their settings.